The week of the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution saw the country plastered in posters. As I drove from Dublin airport into the city on the eve of the vote, every lamppost held an exhortation to vote Yes or, more frequently, to vote No. Some were vague pleas based on kindness or charity, towards mother, baby or both. Others were more direct. “Don’t repeal me,” said one poster bearing the blurry image of a twelve week ultrasound scan. Outside maternity hospitals, the shadowy anti-abortion group who organize under the name the Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform held huge banners emblazoned with images of fetuses. Members of the Garda Siochána, Ireland’s police force, watched over them. The ICBR’s activists wore body cameras and awaited engagement from agitated, upset members of the public. When these members of the public spoke, many of their accents turned out to be North American.
This was been a campaign that went on too long. The 8th amendment was introduced in 1983, brought in by anti-choice fundamentalists who feared a Roe v. Wade-style liberalization of Irish abortion law. It runs as follows:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
Since it was passed by referendum, an effective ban on abortion has been in place in Ireland. Women nonetheless traveled to the UK to access terminations, with as many as eleven a day giving Irish addresses at clinics in Liverpool and Manchester and London. The costs of travel and medical care varied between £400 and £2,000. Many more took abortion pills bought illegally on the internet, risking fourteen years in prison in doing so. At home, the exceptions of substantial risk to a woman’s life did not hold in the 1992 “X” case, when a 14-year-old who had been raped by someone close to her family and was suicidal at the possibility of giving birth was not permitted to travel to the UK to access abortion. It did not hold in the case of Savita Halappanavar, the dentist who, while miscarrying in 2012, became gravely ill and requested a termination in a Galway hospital. She was refused, told by staff that “this is a Catholic country,” and died from septicemia and organ failure. The law, as it stood, did not acknowledge the right of life of the mother, and women ended up dead because of it.
“Savita’s case was a huge galvanizing moment in our movement,” explained Emily Waszak of Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ) Ireland, who work for the reproductive rights of migrants and asylum seekers. The death of Savita, as she is known now to the whole country, triggered a groundswell of support for reform of Ireland’s abortion law. Vigils and marches took place demanding an overturn of the ban on abortion. Doctors spoke out, explaining that the shoddily worded law was preventing them from delivering adequate care. For my generation of Irish women in their childbearing years, Savita’s death made it plain that being pregnant in Ireland, whether willingly or otherwise, meant your will was secondary to the pregnancy itself, and the pregnancy would take priority to the point of your death if necessary.
But Savita’s tragic death brought new momentum to a movement that had been gathering pace for years and even decades before. The Abortion Rights Campaign, an alliance of choice advocates, campaigners, and political groups came into being months before Savita’s story broke. Many of the campaigners involved in the burgeoning movement to repeal the 8th had been involved in the campaign to reject its introduction in 1983. In the intervening years, there had always been grassroots activism around abortion rights. But it was Savita’s death that pushed beyond those grassroots.
“I would say the catalyst for moving our position was the death of Savita Halappanavar,” said Ethel Buckley, deputy general secretary of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union, representing workers in healthcare, transport, services, the public sector, and more:
At that time we, like so many other people in the country, were really disturbed by her death. We became involved quite spontaneously in what I would refer to as the ‘Never Again’ movement, in direct reaction to Savita’s passing. That is the first time that I’m aware of us as a union being visibly involved in the pro-choice movement.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions had quietly supported a NO vote to the introduction to the 8th amendment in 1983, “but you couldn’t really say there was a campaign.”
By contrast, SIPTU brought the issue of repealing the 8th amendment specifically to its members at the delegate conference in October 2017. “Our Equality Committee put a motion to conference that the union should support the call for a referendum to repeal the 8th,” Buckley told me. “It was debated on the conference floor, both sides of the argument were put to delegates in a really respectful debate, it was not an emotive debate. And then the delegate floor overwhelmingly voted in favor of supporting the call for a referendum.” While it is impossible to imagine that all of SIPTU’s 200,000 members would support lifting the ban on abortion, the huge support among members for the referendum showed how much society overall had moved on the issue.
Savita’s death came at a time when women were gradually becoming more able to talk openly about pregnancy, healthcare, and abortion. Earlier in 2012, three women who had been forced to travel to England to access terminations after being diagnosed with fatal fetal abnormalities—meaning their pregnancies could be carried to full term, but that their babies would not live outside the womb—discussed their experiences on Ireland’s flagship TV chat show, The Late Late Show. They would go on to form the group Terminations for Medical Reasons, or TFMR, and became vital in changing the language around termination in Ireland. For many people, the idea that couples in this situation would have to travel to receive proper healthcare was new information. During these years there was a growing realization that abortions were not something undertaken only by women making difficult decisions out of wedlock, women and girls who in previous generations may have been shunned by their small Irish communities. Abortions were undertaken by women of all ages, married and unmarried, for an enormous variety of reasons. For years and decades there had been shame and stigma associated with women who became pregnant out of wedlock. Often they were sent to Magdalene laundries—institutions run by convents with the aim of confining these women and thus maintaining the public moral good. The last of these closed in 1993. The ability simply to talk about a woman’s experience cannot be taken lightly in this context.
The journey to England takes only fifty minutes by air and can cost anywhere from €9.99 to hundreds of euros. So it was clear that the 8th affected poorer women and women whose rights to travel were tenuous or nonexistent. Ireland’s system of dealing with asylum seekers is called “direct provision,” and essentially leaves vulnerable people to languish in accommodation centers unable to work or even cook for themselves while their applications are processed, for years at a time. Emily Waszak of MERJ Ireland explained this:
Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants can’t travel, so this isn’t an option. The only option they have is to find and take abortion pills illegally and in secret, risking fourteen years in prison and possible deportation. For people without English literacy, finding reputable sources for the pills, or even basic information about them can be very tricky. And for those of us who can travel, we often have to arrange travel documents and wait for visas. Abortion is obviously time-sensitive, so this can delay access to basic healthcare, sometimes fatally.
Practical concerns such as these are what drove the demand for abortion services that are free, safe, legal, and local. Activists recognize that anything else would not be good enough.
There had been several cases in the years since 2012 that had brought the reality of crisis pregnancy in direct provision to public attention, but Waszak didn’t think the whole story had been shown. “Ms Y” was the name given to a teenage asylum seeker who attempted to travel to England to access abortion after rape in 2014, but was arrested on arrival and sent back to Ireland. After telling her doctors that she felt suicidal as a result of the pregnancy, her case became a test of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, the post-Savita law that supposedly allowed termination in such cases, if approved by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician. However, since her pregnancy had gotten to the point of viability, a termination was denied.
Ms Y went on hunger strike, at which point the Health Service Executive obtained a court order to rehydrate her by force until a C-section could be carried out. “This is one of the most horrific examples of the intersection of the misogyny of the 8th amendment and the racism of direct provision, but there are many people who have never even heard of her case,” said Waszak. “Irish people also don’t really know that much about DP. They don’t realize that asylum seekers can’t travel or that if they take pills they risk deportation. They don’t realize they share bedrooms and toilets with strangers. They don’t realize what the reality of a crisis pregnancy in DP looks like.”
In the years since 2012, the issue of abortion in Ireland began to look less like a moral matter delineated by Catholic teaching and more like a practical matter of healthcare. By 2017, nobody under the age of 50 had had a chance to vote on abortion law across the board. In April 2017, a randomly selected group of sixty-six citizens who had been charged by the government with considering the question of abortion voted overwhelmingly that the amendment should be scrapped. When Leo Varadkar, leader of the Fine Gael party, took office as Taoiseach that summer, he promised a referendum the following year.
At Dublin’s Charlemont station on the morning of the vote, where I handed out Yes leaflets, many of those alighting trams were on their way to work in the area nicknamed “Silicon Docks,” where Google, Facebook, and Twitter locate their EU headquarters, thanks to Ireland’s generous corporate tax regime. Many were young and visibly liberal, wearing badges and jumpers in support of a Yes vote. Several stopped to tell me that they couldn’t vote—they weren’t Irish citizens—but they were with us here. One young Irish man came and asked for a sticker. “I just voted,” he said, with a slight tremor in his voice. “There were three nuns there voting, so I am worried now.”
The church itself had been relatively quiet during the referendum. In Ireland’s previous abortion referendums—on the right to travel, after the X case, and in 2002 on abortion where there was a non-suicide threat to the life of the woman—there had been pronouncements from bishops all along the way. This campaign was mostly secular, a new departure for Ireland’s electoral politics. That said something about the liberalization the country had brought about over the last 20 years, especially after the Church’s sex abuse scandals in the 1990s. Even among the faithful, there was little room or appetite for the opinions of bishops.
In 2014 the work of Catherine Corless, an amateur historian, came to global attention. She had spent years investigating the Church’s involvement with a Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, where unmarried women were sent to give birth under the care of the Bon Secours order of nuns between the 1920s and 1960s. Corless found that 796 children had died there, buried mostly in the grounds of the home, including, she believed, in the building’s septic tanks. Her investigation prompted the government to launch an inquiry into the institutions. Outrage and horror and embarrassment were widespread. Today it is increasingly hard for the Church to preach on babies and bodies when we know what we do now about what it did in the recent past.
From the outset it looked as though the campaign itself would be brutal. Political parties, including the republican Sinn Féin, and the centrist Fianna Fáil, split down the middle on the issue. Minister for Health Simon Harris’s staunch Yes support led to some groups on the NO side superimposing his image onto a background of graphic abortion images and sticking them up on lampposts in his constituency. TV and radio debates turned into shouting matches. Politicians who changed their minds from NO to Yes were accused of hypocrisy. Dr. Peter Boylan, one of the country’s leading obstetricians and a vocal campaigner for Yes, was heckled and laughed at during TV debates on the issue. Yes activists’ informations stalls in towns and communities were attacked in public. Even elements of the Yes-leaning media criticized the Yes campaign for seeming disorganized or not unified enough. Meanwhile, online, concerns over foreign interference led Facebook to ban ads related to the vote from outside Ireland, and Google to ban referendum ads outright. Unsurprisingly, the No campaign complained of being silenced.
But on the ground, the Yes campaign felt positive. “What’s noteworthy about this campaign is that the campaign groups and communities are almost entirely led by women, and young women,” said Buckley. “So this is really a women-led movement. I think the organization on the ground and the style of campaigning by the yes side really reflects that fact. It’s very well organized, and people are taking care of each other.”
“Between being grassroots bottom-up as well as women-led, the political establishment and media did not know how to deal with us,” explained Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign, who formed a major part of Together for Yes, the civil society alliance during the campaign. Together for Yes was led by three female co-directors, activists who had spent decades fighting for choice. “There is a very specific idea of what politics looks like in some people’s heads and we weren’t that, so we were assumed to be inept.”
Elements of the No campaign, in particular Save the 8th’s bullish spokesperson John McGuirk, attempted to paint the No vote as a Trumpian callback to the mainstream media, the liberal elite, “the politicians up in Dublin.” There were reasonable fears amon some on the Repeal side that we were in an echo chamber—that none of us knew any No voters because we only knew like-minded people. Activists had learned from the Brexit referendum and its extreme differences in opinion between young city-dwellers and those in more rural, traditional communities. Ireland’s diaspora is broad and wide and many of my generation who emigrated after university, having lost their vote after only eighteen months abroad, instead turned their attention to picking up the phone and persuading potential No voters in their family or from their town to vote Yes instead.
This was coupled with a concerted and extremely organized effort on the ground in terms of canvassing in communities across Ireland. Linda Kavanagh said: “We (in the ARC) knew for a long time that this law would not be changed solely in Dublin. People outside Dublin, and especially in rural areas, have unique problems in accessing reproductive healthcare such as fear of judgment from the GP or confidentiality concerns. We made a concerted effort to aid any regional groups in setting up and included them in our Dublin meetings using remote technology.”
“Politicians took a long time to catch up to the will of the people on this issue,” she continued. “For a long time we concentrated on giving people the language and confidence to talk about this issue. We have always tried to break down stigma by giving people the tools to have those difficult conversations on this issue.”
“Although the majority of our delegates decided to go with this policy position, we were absolutely aware the policy position we’d take would not sit comfortably with all of our members,” said Buckley of SIPTU. “We have been really careful to try to educate our activist base about why we’ve taken this decision. Making sure people understand why we came to this decision. We’re 42 percent women union members and we need our members to have the healthcare services that they need in their own country.”
As results from the two exit polls came in, the size of the margin of victory became apparent. “They care about us,” I heard one young woman murmur near me, looking at the news on her phone. The size of the margin meant there was no way this was only about the cities, the educated, the young, or the liberal. An exit poll of 68 percent meant that the result was general all over Ireland. Observant Catholics had voted yes and farmers in traditional town-lands had voted Yes. People who broadly consider themselves pro-life had voted Yes. 70 percent of women polled voted to repeal. The second poll, ran by the state broadcaster RTÉ, found that 76 percent of voters had not changed their mind on this question in the past five years. For those voters who had felt influenced during the campaign itself, it was personal stories as covered by the media, as well as the experiences of people known to the voters, that had had the greatest impact. When faced with posters on one side preaching compassion and trust for women, they thought of the women whose stories they knew. “I was shocked by the landslide,” Kavanagh said. “It says that we as Irish women dared not hope that the country valued us as much as they turned out to. It also shows that the old ways of doing politics are dying. Grassroots, intersectional campaigning has changed the face of this country.”
At Dublin Castle, several of those politicians took the stage to rapturous cheers. Crowds filled the courtyard of the building to celebrate and observe, as they had at the announcement of the referendum on marriage equality three years previous. Some of the politicians on stage had only had their moments of conversion weeks or months before, and yet were ready to take the applause as if it was they who had given up their time and energy to pound pavements and tell stories of women’s experience for years and decades. “I was warned about this, that it will only be politicians’ names in the history books, and there is only so much room on the stage at Dublin Castle,” Kavanagh said. “It’s something you have to adjust to. As grassroots activists, we know that we won’t get the credit we deserve and we have to just live with that. It’s why it’s all the more important that we take care of each other afterwards.”
In the Dáil, Ireland’s lower house of parliament, four days after the vote, Independent TD Clare Daly, a longtime advocate of bodily autonomy in the Dáil, made a significant and furious speech to the house. “I acknowledge your role, genuinely, Taoiseach, and you, Minister Harris,” she stated from across the chamber:
You were at the helm and you did steer the ship, and history will testify that you delivered and I thank you for that. But let’s be honest here, right, politicians haven’t led on this issue. We haven’t even followed until recently. This has been an uphill battle pushing a boulder up a hill over decades and nobody in here was involved in pushing it up. Let’s be honest about it for once, can we? Nobody was. In actual fact, a lot of people in here were sitting on the boulder, making it even more difficult for those outside who wanted to push for change. And then we have the others, of course, who once the boulder was at the top of the hill about to go down the other side, decided to jump ahead, even though they hadn’t done any of the pushing, and try and claim some of the glory.
The camera cut to Varadkar and Harris on the frontbench. The two men nodded and attempted to look self-effacing. The vote may rightly feel like recompense for how Ireland treated its women for too long. But legislation will take several months more to push through parliament. The first legal and accessible terminations are expected to take place in early 2019. Until then, eleven more Irish women pack their bags and travel to England every single day. They continue to do so alone, forced from a country that for too long turned its back.